Frost, hail, heat and now the bats

Chairman of the Batlow Fruit Co-op John Robson is confident that, although affected by the harsh weather conditions, this year's crop will be a success.
Chairman of the Batlow Fruit Co-op John Robson is confident that, although affected by the harsh weather conditions, this year’s crop will be a success.

The familiar crunch of juicy sweet apples can be heard throughout the Shire, with Batlow’s growers busy at work picking this year’s produce.

While Mother Nature has given the growers a challenge this season, with frosts, heat and hail all reducing crop numbers, farmers are confident that the quality of the remaining fruit will keep the market in their favour.

Owner of Wilgro Orchards since 1986, Ralph Wilson, has never before seen a season like this year’s.

“It has been the hottest season that I have ever experienced in Batlow,” Mr Wilson said.

“It’s been the first year we haven’t hired extra pickers for the whole season because there has not been enough crop for it to be economically feasible.

“The hardest part was keeping the water up, so it was nice to have the cool change and rain.”

Mr Wilson said the crops on the Western side of his property were most affected by the harsh weather conditions, his Galas almost completely wiped out by the frost back in November and only a third of the Kanzi’s able to be sold.

He will, however, be hiring pickers for a healthy Pink Lady crop in two or three weeks.

Fellow apple grower, Greg Mouat of Mouat’s Farm agreed that this season has been more difficult than usual.

“It certainly has been an interesting season this year,” Mr Mouat said.

“We’ve had the quadruple whammy – frosts, hail, heat and now overcast days with heavy rain and little sun.

“We were lucky enough to have dodged some of the bullets, with no frost or hail affecting our crops , but we have had significant burn damage, which has wiped out a high percentage of our crop.”

Like Mr Wilson’s property, trees on the western side of Mr Mouat’s crop were most affected by the harsh sun and dry heat, with early and mid-season varieties such as Kanzi, Green Star, Gala and Fuji most effected, while Pink Lady and Sundowner remaining in high numbers.

Many growers have had to go through a second thinning process as a result of the damage caused early this year from the sun.

It is, however, not only the weather which has made for a difficult season.

“The bats have come back in big numbers,” Mr Mouat said. They seem to have built up a colony in Tumut and although it’s not as bad as it was four years ago they have been a real problem over the last three or four weeks.”

“You can see that there is a certain point on each of the trees where the apples finish, it’s because the bats are eating them all,” he said indicating the consistently bare branches at the top of each row of trees.

Frustrated by the lack of support, Mr Mouat called on the local government to do something about the problem.

“Our livelihoods are at risk with the amount of bats and birds that are in the area attacking our crop and I encourage the government to look seriously at opportunities to protect the crops of growers throughout the region,” Mr Mouat said.

“We can’t be expected to sit back and watch while a group of endangered species destroy everything we work for.”

Despite the difficulties faced this season, it is not all doom and gloom for Batlow’s apple growers.

Although the crops are significantly smaller this year, the growers agreed that the quality of fruit has benefited from the dry heat.

“Being a warm, dry year the sugars have come up which means the intensity of the flavour is strong,” Mr Mouat said.

“The apples that we are throwing away because they have been burnt or split are still top quality fruit.”

“The dry heat has been better flavour-wise, because they have not been washed out with rain,” Mr Wilson agreed.

“The quality is definitely there, there’s just not enough of them.”

The market is also looking positive this year, with a smaller amount of produce across Australia increasing the cost of apples and thus the returns for the growers.

“With less crop nation-wide the returns should be much better this year as the prices are strong and look to remain so,” Mr Mouat said.

“What we lose in production we could well pick up through sales.

“Although it has been a tough season, with Mother Nature kicking us a round a bit, it should be a good year financially.”

Chairman of the Batlow Fruit Co-op John Robson said that it was important for growers to stay optimistic.

“If you are growing fruit you have to stay positive, people will always want to eat so there will always be a market and therefore a need to grow the product,” Mr Robson said.

With around 30 apple orchards, Batlow continues its reputation as one of the key apple growing regions in Australia and with the industry changing, growers are adapting to meet demand.

“The fruit industry is changing,” Mr Robson said.

“Growers are introducing new varieties of apples to their crops, like Honeycrisp, Green Star and Kanzi.

“You will also see growers planting more highly coloured selections of apples, especially Gala.

“It’s a fashion industry and the product is sold largely based on it’s aesthetic appeal.

“Customers are more likely to buy a beautifully red apple than one that might look a bit rough but be full of flavour.”

Mr Robson said the ever-opening global market continues to become more competitive, with exports not only increasing competition amongst varieties but amongst other fruits which are now becoming available year round.

“A lot of other fruits are now seasonly competitive close on 12 months of the year due to the increase in imports, where previously fruit would only be available for a few months of the year” Mr Robson said.

“If someone goes to the supermarket with a certain amount to spend on fruit and they see other options to local apples it can be tempting to buy the imports instead.”

Proud of this year’s produce, Batlow growers are hoping the community will continue to support local business and once again crunch into this year’s scrumptious selection of apples as they are busily picked, packed and sold throughout the State.